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Runaway Train Hits Another in Cajon Pass

December 15, 1994|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAJON JUNCTION, Calif. — An out-of-control Santa Fe freight train slammed into the rear of a parked Union Pacific coal train as it descended the treacherous Cajon Pass before dawn Wednesday, moments after the crews of both trains jumped to safety.

The crash derailed five locomotives and four cars and sparked a fire that burned for hours. The flames and jumbled wreckage were clearly visible to motorists on Interstate 15, about 18 miles north of San Bernardino.

The two Santa Fe crew members were injured as they jumped from their locomotive about 1,500 feet before the collision, as the train accelerated to 45 m.p.h., according to witnesses who talked to them. Both men were listed in stable condition Wednesday.

Two crew members in the rear locomotive of the parked coal train fled about a minute before the crash and watched the collision from a safe distance, a railroad spokesman said.

The 82-car Union Pacific train was headed to Los Angeles from Provo, Utah. The train, carrying a shipment of coal destined for Japan, had stopped on the tracks for a red signal, to allow another train to cross the tracks farther ahead, said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis.

The crew was monitoring Santa Fe dispatches and heard that the mile-long freight train was barreling toward it, unable to stop, Davis said. The two crew members in the rear locomotive, as well as crew members at the front, ran from the train, he said.

A passing motorist, Fred Dressler, hurried to the scene after he watched flames erupt in the morning darkness.

He said one of the Union Pacific crew members told him, "We saw the headlights and we bailed."

Dressler said he ran to the aid of the two dazed Santa Fe crewmen who jumped clear of the train. One of them told him the train had lost its brakes and was traveling about 45 m.p.h.

On that stretch of track--six miles into a 3% downhill grade--the normal speed is about 15 m.p.h., officials said.

A spokeswoman for San Bernardino County Medical Center identified the Santa Fe crew members as Leland Whitsitt, who suffered chest injuries and a spine fracture, and Keith Stockwell, who sustained blunt abdominal trauma.

Santa Fe Railroad operations manager Ron Jackson said investigators had not yet determined what caused the double-deck freight train to lose control. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and the state Public Utilities Commission were dispatched to the scene, near the junction of I-15 and California 138 as it leads to Wrightwood.

The Santa Fe train was headed for Los Angeles from Birmingham, Ala., carrying furniture and other commodities.

The train had stopped about half an hour earlier and, at the time, its brakes were functioning well, Jackson said.

Officials said the track--one of three through the pass--is expected to be reopened today.

Railroad officials say the heavily traveled 23-mile-long grade through the Cajon Pass is one of the most challenging for trainmen because of its curves and steepness.

In 1989, a runaway Southern Pacific freight that reached speeds of 105 m.p.h. jumped the track on a curve at the bottom of the grade and plowed into a row of houses in San Bernardino, killing four people and injuring 30 others.

Two weeks later, a gasoline pipeline that was damaged in the cleanup of the derailment ruptured in a fireball, killing two more people, injuring 31 others and destroying or damaging 29 homes.

Three months ago, a Union Pacific freight train lost control and reached speeds in excess of 70 m.p.h. before it recovered its brakes and screeched to a halt in the Santa Fe rail yard in San Bernardino.

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